Church & State: Immaculate Contraception
Back in 1914 Margaret Sanger included information about birth control in the June issue of her magazine, The Woman Rebel. She was arrested under the Comstock Law and her ally, the anarchist Emma Goldman, was soon after arrested for the same crime. Fast forward to 2012 and another battle over birth control is brewing (or, rather, being brewed).
Rick Santorum has made it clear that he is against contraception and Obama and the Catholic Church recently locked horns over one aspect of the health reform law. This law requires that health insurance plans offer free birth control. Since this would include Catholic affiliated hospitals and schools, the Catholic Church has been pushing back against the law.
Not surprisingly, this is being portrayed as an attack on religious liberty and the values of Catholicism. However, it is rather important to note that the law does not apply to churches, but rather only to institutions, such as hospitals and schools, that serve a large number of non-Catholics and also receive federal money.
As such, it is rather tempting to say that this is actually a manufactured issue. After all, the law simply requires that these institutions follow the same laws as everyone else and these institutions can presumably elect to refuse the federal money an thus avoid the requirement they regard as onerous. Also, churches are exempt from this and there is no requirement that they change their religious doctrines.
It might be replied that this requirement still violates the ethical views of the church by requiring institutions affiliated with the church to provide services and products the church rejects. One obvious reply is that if churches are entitled to be exempt from such laws based on their doctrines, then they could, for example, adopt the view that medical care is against God’s will and thus not be required to provide any medical insurance coverage at all. This, obviously enough, seems rather absurd.
The obvious reply is that the Catholic doctrine is well-established and hence they are opposed to this requirement on established moral grounds rather than merely trying to weasel out of paying for some service. This raises two questions.
The first is whether or not churches (or any groups) should be granted exemption from laws based on their moral beliefs. The second is whether or not the rejection of contraception is, in fact, a Catholic moral position.
In regards to the first question, there are good reasons for allowing said exemptions and others against it. In terms of allowing such exemptions, it does seem correct for the state to endeavor to avoid imposing on the conscience of people when possible. For example, conscientious objectors have been recognized during the time of war. Allowing the Catholic Church a contraception exception would thus seem to fall within this realm of legitimacy.
That said, there are clearly cases in which such exemptions would be absurd. For example, a group that regarded murder as morally correct would not thus be granted a murder exemption. As such, there is the challenge of determining what sort of exemptions would be acceptable, which would not and which would be absurd.
One standard (among many) that seems reasonable would be to require that the group in question actually holds to the principle and is not, for example, merely trying to get an exemption to avoid paying for legally a required service or to simply to get away with something. After all, to grant an exemption on moral grounds to a group that does not actually hold to that moral principle would seem rather unwarranted. This, of course, does raise the question about who determines the moral principles of the group. This takes me to the matter of birth control and Catholicism.
In my own experience, most Catholics have been fine with using birth control (or letting their partner use it). While my own observations over the years could be unusual, this is completely consistent with the polls showing that 98% of Catholics use some form of birth control. This certainly suggests that Obama’s view is in line with 98% of Catholics. Assuming that the Catholics do not regard their actions as immoral, it would seem that Obama’s view is thus consistent with the moral view of the majority of the Catholics and the folks who oppose this law on the basis of an alleged moral concern are the ones that are in the wrong.
It can, of course, be replied that these birth control using Catholics are immoral and that the true morality of Catholicism is against birth control. If so, the Catholic church needs to get its flocks back into the right pasture and off birth control. The obvious reply to this is that it seems to make little sense for a tiny minority of a group to define the values of the group against the beliefs and actions of the majority.
This does not, of course, address the issue of whether or not birth control is immoral. If it is, then a case could certainly be made against it. This would, of course, require arguments that address such moral concerns as the fact that the use of birth control lowers the number of abortions, the fact that its availability allows women greater control over reproduction, the fact that its availability can provide protection against disease and so on. Presumably this could be done.
Of course, God does not seem to have much of a problem with birth control. While it does fail sometimes, He could easily make it fail 100% of the time. If it was that big of a deal to Him, surely He would do things like smite holes into all condoms.